F, King Alexander 101518

LSU President F. King Alexander told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, that changes in the university's admissions standards has helped shape the most diverse, highest achieving freshman class in school history.

At one time, it was liberals like F. King Alexander who were in favor of standardized tests.

Those were the days when it was considered unfair that the privileged classes in American society had advantages, including in colleges. It was the liberals who mocked the notion that George W. Bush got into Yale University on merit, and who wanted to quantify actual knowledge of potential students to make society more meritocratic.

As it turned out, George Bush did pretty well in life, even taking up the arts in retirement, whatever the merits of holistic admissions of legacies in the Ivy League.

Interestingly, the political worm has turned.

Today, it is the conservatives who have become the more likely supporters of standardized testing like that of the ACT and the SAT, the big college admissions tests.

That has been the subject of controversy at LSU, where the leadership is trying to expand undergraduate enrollment, including a sudden dropping of the rule that an ACT score of 22 out of a possible 36 is required for admission.

But standardized testing is under criticism from the political left in other spheres. Teacher unions in Louisiana have often been dismissive of the standardized tests that have been fundamental to the accountability program for public schools that began to be implemented in the 1990s.

Under pressure, the Legislature pushed — and conservatives somewhat caved in on this — changes to evaluate the success of teachers as the “value-added” in test scores.

On the positive side, Louisiana is one of the states that requires all public school seniors to take, or have taken, the ACT.

In defense of his dramatic change at LSU, Alexander made the case that colleges across the United States — and not just the private colleges in the Ivy League, but many public institutions — have retreated from testing. The theory is that the students who can succeed at LSU, and of course the campus needs the paying customers, can demonstrate the capacity to do college work in other ways.

The ACT or SAT may be completely optional in higher education in a few years, Alexander told editors and reporters at The Advocate.

If this sounds squishy, it is. Some academics will argue that an ACT mathematics score is the better predictor of college success, rather than the 22 composite score. It certainly is better than a glowing recommendation from a state senator, for example.

Still, Alexander pointed out some ways that quality students can be identified, including a commitment to taking higher-quality Advanced Placement courses; even if the student does not gain credit, that classroom experience might be reasonably factored into the admissions decision.

A student who perseveres on mathematics or other difficult courses in his senior year, instead of disappearing from the classroom because of advanced senioritis, is another who might succeed at LSU. Taking the ACT several times might raise the score, but that may not be possible for a student from a poorer family who could nevertheless go on to get a college degree.

Alexander has been a strong advocate of accountability in higher education, including pushing the national discussion of more transparency in colleges’ results for students. This has been a harder battle than it might seem; elite private colleges might not want to disclose that their philosophy graduates are not making lavish wages as baristas. An LSU graduate in engineering will be doing much better, and maybe some of the philosophy grads, too.

Still, the reduction in the ACT scores mandated for years by the coordinating body for higher education in Louisiana, the Board of Regents, ensured a robust discussion of standardized tests in admissions. Is LSU's new policy accountability at the student level?

A review of the literature at the conservative Martin Center in North Carolina favors the tests.

A recent set of essays from scholars “provides considerable evidence that standardized tests add significant value to the admissions process — most notably because it is the only transparent, objective measure available,” wrote analyst Jenna A. Robinson. “By giving up standardized testing, colleges may be losing crucial information on whether prospective students can succeed in the college environment.”

Holistic admissions that play down or eliminate test scores may be the new thing on campuses. LSU still requires taking the ACT for its revised admissions process. But as Robinson noted, testing has been losing ground.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.

Our Views: Regents should look deeper into LSU's new admissions policies